Thrown Out: A Trauma Surgeon's COVID Experience

Ron's Story

Ronald I. Gross, MD; Jeffrey B. Teitler, MFA, photographer


September 21, 2020

Editor's note: In an effort to preserve the experiences of healthcare workers on the front lines, Medscape developed a set of artistic portraits of hospital practitioners who worked (and are working) through this pandemic. These images are accompanied by a short essay written by the participants that gives us a glimpse of their experience. It is a privilege to capture these stories, and we do so with the hope that those who risked their health, lives, and families in the service of others are not forgotten.

Ron Gross, MD: In His Own Words

When the pandemic arrived, something happened to us, and we need to talk about it.

Throughout my career as a trauma surgeon, I have proudly relied upon and participated within diverse and specialized teams. With fellow surgeons, nurses, cooks, and housekeepers, together we have celebrated miraculous recoveries and have been moved by devastating losses.

Even before COVID-19, we sacrificed time with our families and canceled too many personal moments — because that's the oath that we took. And I never thought twice about doing it.

During the worst of the pandemic, our entire team of care providers showed up for every shift. We did so when personal protective equipment was in short supply. We wore recycled gear and continued working at the bedsides of the sickest patients.

Across the country, many of us were being infected with COVID-19, and some did not survive. Others recovered but later died at their own hands because of the horrors they witnessed. We were scared, and I watched it play out every day.

I would see the fear on my wife's face when I'd come home from the hospital, and I'd promise her that we would be alright. That fear was also in my daughter and son-in-law, who fled New York City and moved in with us. They had their almost-2-year-old daughter with them. But I still went to work.

Later, as the numbers subsided, I received a call. It was my chairman. His voice seemed stressed as he told me that our health system had tasked him with notifying me and several other surgeons that our positions had been terminated.

I didn't say anything. I could hear the pain in his voice. Similar conversations began occurring all over the country as this unthinkable treatment of our "essential practitioners" became not only irresponsible but an implemented malpractice.

The pain is real when you hear those words. There are no administrative "thank you's" or moments of appreciation, either. While the public hails healthcare workers as heroes, termination notices are coldly and quietly handed out. Positions are eliminated. It is a nationwide evisceration, and it's shattering essential lives.

Salaries are being cut and furloughs imposed. Termination notices are our new and unacceptable normal. Moreover, to control the corporate health message, the industry is censoring, threatening, and/or firing health professionals who speak out about it. But that is our responsibility.

The irresponsible administrative decisions, poor treatment of my colleagues, and unnecessary cutting of essential medical teams across the country is not out of fiscal necessity — it's greed. I see waves of programs, services, and providers discarded while overinflated administrative salaries remain protected and saturated with funds.

I know this story well. And though it hurts, my colleagues and I have dedicated our lives to this skill, art, and profession. Our sacrifices for the care of patients and life-saving practices were implemented with purpose. In the face of a resurgence, these efforts and those of us who implemented them are not things to be discarded.

Similar mistakes have been made in the past. Our returning veterans were hailed as heroes after wars, but did they receive heroic treatment? Particularly when they needed care?

Healthcare remains a beautiful profession. It is a calling for those who choose to care for others, and it's time to remind the business side of healthcare to remember the personal side of medicine and to once again make it the priority. And although it can be terrifying to do so, if we speak up — loudly and collectively, with as much intellect, risk, and dedication as we bring to our practice — we can and will reclaim it.

Jeffrey B. Teitler is a professor of filmmaking at Central Connecticut State University and the director of Envision Films. His scripted and nonscripted works have been presented nationwide, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations, and his work has been an official selection and/or winner at a number of film festivals.

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